Dozens of pro sports teams involved in ‘paid patriotism’
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 4, 2015
WASHINGTON — The Defense Department’s use of “paid patriotism” at sporting events went far beyond a few NFL franchises, according to an investigation released Wednesday by two senators.
In the past three years, the department doled out money to dozens of professional sports teams to buy events and access aimed at honoring the military, Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake found after examining defense contracts.
In all, 18 National Football League teams, 10 Major League Baseball teams, eight National Basketball Association teams, six National Hockey League teams and eight Major League Soccer teams were involved, the senators said.
The military marketing contracts with the teams, worth a total of $6.8 million, paid for troop tributes, military field ceremonies, player appearances and VIP passes. The lawmakers said the practice has been an embarrassment to DOD, which relies on marketing to increase recruitments, and misled viewers to believe franchise owners and teams were bankrolling tributes out of patriotism.
“They obviously should not be doing this,” McCain said. “We appreciate if they [teams] honor the men and women in uniform, but not to get paid for it.”
The report, called Tackling Paid Patriotism, gave several specific examples:
- The Air Force paid the L.A. Galaxy soccer team to recognize high-ranking officers in 2012;
- The National Guard paid the Boston Bruins hockey team for a luxury box and executive suite during a military appreciation night;
- In 2014, the National Guard paid the Seattle Seahawks football team to allow 10 soldiers to re-enlist on the field in a pregame event and,
- The National Guard paid the Indianapolis Colts football team for a luxury suite, autographs, pregame visits to the field and cheerleader appearances.
The DOD and sports teams have said they will stop the practice and the NFL is conducting an audit to ensure no more payments are accepted for events and access to honor troops.
“If we find that inappropriate payments were made, they will be refunded in full,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote Monday in a letter to the senators. “We will share the results of this review with you.”
He said the league has raised millions of dollars for military charities and strongly opposes the use of DOD recruitment funds for the salutes and tributes.
Beginning Sept. 14, the DOD required deeper scrutiny of contracts and barred any payments to teams for troop tributes, department spokesman Matthew Allen wrote Wednesday in a statement.
Meanwhile, the 2016 defense budget under consideration in Congress now includes language that would ban the practice. It could be sent to the White House for signature next week.
“The leagues have pledged not to continue,” McCain said. “Now, as soon as the president signs the National Defense Authorization Act into law, it will be prohibited.”
The investigation into the payments began last spring when Flake’s office heard reports of the New York Jets football team being compensated for troop tributes.
In June, the DOD said it did not want confusion between community events and military advertising and it would review all sports marketing contracts. But the department did not produce records for all of its spending during the probe.
Its response to the senators’ request for documents only accounted for 62 percent of the 122 contracts signed with sports teams and 70 percent of the total spending.
“Over the course of the effort, we discovered the startling fact that DOD cannot accurately account for how many contracts it has awarded or how much has been spent,” according to the report.
Flake said the rest of the documents were collected by Senate staff and charged the department with stonewalling out of embarrassment. He said the full scope of the payments might not yet be known.
“It was like pulling teeth and we are still not convinced we have all the information so far,” Flake said.
Getting information from the Defense Department about a marketing program that doles out millions of dollars to professional sports teams to pay for patriotic tributes at games "was like pulling teeth, and we are still not convinced we have all the information so far," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., during a press event on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES